First, I wish to reiterate my previous comments and say how pleased I am that this important scheme is now operational and that applications are being submitted to the Victims’ Payments Board. I trust that the scheme will have a positive impact on the many victims and survivors who suffered a permanent disablement as a result of a Troubles-related incident.
In line with the Victims’ Payments Regulations 2020, my Department was designated by the Executive Office to exercise the administrative functions of the Victims’ Payments Board on the board’s behalf. A project team was established in the Department to put in place the necessary arrangements to support the administration of the scheme.
That included the development of an application form and accompanying guidance for approval by the Victims’ Payments Board, development of a website for the board and a portal to accept online applications. Arrangements were also put in place with a range of organisations with which the Victims’ Payments Board will engage to access information to assist with the assessment of applications.
My Department is also responsible for providing the necessary number of staff to support the administration of the scheme, subject to the approval of the Executive Office. That includes a secretary to the Victims’ Payments Board. Accommodation has been secured for the administration team, and the necessary IT equipment has been provided to staff to enable them to carry out their roles.
My Department also arranged procurement of the service for assessing the level of permanent disablement of applicants to the scheme. The contract was awarded to Capita in February, and my Department has ensured the implementation of the necessary arrangements so that Capita can accept referrals from the Victims’ Payments Board.
With specific respect to their service regarding the Victims' Payments Board and this particular scheme, it is too early to judge the performance as we are still at the very earliest stages of applications and assessments. However, it is something that we will keep under review, given the very negative assessments of some of those third-sector bodies in their delivery around, for example, the personal independence payment (PIP) scheme. It is something that we are aware of. However, we are also conscious that it is a very different scheme and a very different contract, and it is monitored in a very different way. We hope that that provides reassurance to those who apply.
Minister, you said that additional support will be made available to organisations representing victims following the commencement of the Troubles permanent disablement payment scheme. Which voluntary organisations will receive that? Do you have any indication of how much extra support will be available?
I thank the Member for his question, but he has mentioned the area that we are not responsible for in the Department of Justice, and that is funding to victims and survivors organisations. Advice workers have been placed in a number of those organisations to help those who need to come forward to fill in application forms. They are there to do that free of charge. Some victims have been approached by solicitors who have suggested that they can help for a fee of £500. I will take this opportunity, again, to remind those who are listening that there is no need to pay for legal advice in order to fill in the forms. There are organisations that will be able to do that, and the Executive Office has set aside money for that purpose. Those advocates are now in place and are undertaking the work that is required of them.
We were aware that there were some who were soliciting business on the basis that if people paid a fee, they would receive assistance from an organisation to complete their forms. A number of things happened. The Law Society put out a very strongly worded statement reminding solicitors that they had a duty not to solicit for business in that way. When the Victims' Payment Board was alerted to the issue, it also put out a statement to stress the fact that, whilst victims are free to seek legal advice if they wish, they are under no obligation to do so. The scheme is designed in such a way that it should not be necessary. Furthermore, by putting in place, as we have done, advocates to assist those who need to fill in the forms and who, perhaps, require some assistance with them, we hope that that will be avoided in future.
It is important to say that the victims' organisations within which those advocates are embedded are fully aware, and are very clear with people who ask for their assistance, that they do not need to have had previous engagement with those organisations. They do not need to be a member of those organisations or have a pre-existing relationship with them in order to benefit from that advocacy scheme. It is there for anyone who chooses to apply to the scheme. It is important that people know that that advice is there for them, free of charge and available, so that they can fill in the form to the best of their ability and, hopefully, have a smooth run through the application process.